The Promise And Failure Of BYOD In Education

The phrase "Bring Your Own Device" (BYOD) is the hot buzzword in many industries right now. I remember hearing about it back in 2004-2005, but it really seemed to start to get traction (as a topic) when Apple released the iPhone and iPad in 2007 and 2010. I've discovered from talking with various people on Twitter that there are various definitations of BYOD floating around. When I say BYOD, I mean that a device you purchased and brought with you is the primary one used to accomplish your job. I'm not meaning that you check your email and calendar from a personal iPhone, while you still have a company issued and managed device. For the purpose of this article, I am going to discuss why BYOD doesn't work for the education environment.

True BYOD is a radical shift in thinking. No longer does the school purchase and deploy devices, but it's left up to the individual teacher and students to decide what to bring. This seems great on paper. The school is left out of the process of purchasing, deploying, and managing devices. This should result in savings of labor and hardware fees, right? On paper, that is true. All the school would be responsible for is the actual network infrastructure. Like with a lot of things, what's on paper doesn't always work out like you expect in a real world environment.

In a typical BYOD environment. The school is responsible for the actual network design (LAN and WLAN), while everyone else just gets to bring what they want. Teacher A is pretty savvy and brings an iPad. She is well versed is some of the latest apps that are being used in the classroom. She plans to integrate the use of technology into her entire teaching process. She's looking at apps like Explain Everything and Perspective for presentations. She really likes Pages for report writing as it's the most detailed tablet word processor she has seen. She also really likes iMovie for movie creation. She has a student who is new to the US and is working hard to learn the english language. She found a great app that allows her to load ebooks and it will dictate the book to the student. This will greatly help with learning how to pronounce words in english. Since her school is a Google Apps school, she plans on using Google Drive for spreadsheets and for long term storage of her classroom PDFs and other files. Since Pages can export documents as PDFs, this is where final copies of the various reports that her students work on will be stored. Notability is what she wants her students to use for note taking. She also plans on doing a science project to help students identify various types of leaves. She found a great app called LeafSnap that will be great for this. Her IT department manager said that the iPad has built in backups through iCloud and she plans on making sure all her students are backing up their devices. Teacher A is thrilled with her setup and is ready to start the new year. She has a month worth of lesson plans ready and is excited about using technology to further engage students.

School has now started and her class is ready to begin. She surveys the student device environment and she has:

  • 5 iPads running iOS 7
  • 3 Nexus 7s
  • 3 Chromebooks
  • 2 iPads running iOS 5 (first generation iPads)
  • 2 Microsoft Surface RTs
  • 1 Kindle Fire

The teacher goes to explain the first lesson of the day and she wants the students to record their first science experiments. She then wants them to edit it using iMovie. The kids with the first generation iPads don't have cameras. They immediately begin asking questions about what they are suppose to do. The kids with the android devices find an app to edit movies with by searching the Google Play store. A few of the kids don't know their parents Google Play passcodes, though. This doesn't even get to the Kindle Fire or Microsoft devices. This scenario is repeated again and again as Teacher A attemps to assign lessons. Some of the apps have Android alternatives and others don't. There is also no native Google Drive app for Kindle Fire. Teacher A also cannot figure out how to make sure all got the devices are backing up important data. All of this leads to confusion and it wastes valuable classroom time.

I know what some of you are thinking. BYOD works if you give students a list of alternatives of the apps you plan to use for other platforms. Again, this sounds great on paper. So in this environment, we expect Teacher A to understand iOS, Android, Fire OS, and Windows 8? I'm in IT and I would fail in this environment. It's simply not realistic to expect a teacher to properly lead a classroom when having to account for that many types of devices. She will also be slowed down by anything new she wants to do as she will have to plan and learn the process on a ton of different device types.

The classroom environment is already difficult enough to manage. The technology needs to be seemless and effortless. By introducing so many variables, we've made technology the focus rather than the curriculum. Why would we let technology create so much chaos when we don't do that with anything else? Are students able to choose what textbooks they want to use? No, schools dictate the textbooks ahead of time. There are models where the schools purchase them and others where they are bought directly by the student. Regardless of the model, every student has the same experience. The teacher can assign students to read pages 40-60 for homework and can trust that everyone is reading the same thing.

I'm not totally against any sort of BYOD program, but it needs to be structured differently. I believe in a baseline BYOD where you lay out the devices that you allow and support. An example of this might be that all students must use an iPad 4 or newer running iOS 7 with certain list of apps. Thanks to some new MDM capabilities in iOS 7, you can even take care of the app purchasing process for the students. I'm not saying that iPads are the only device that can be successfully used in the classroom. I'd rather see a classroom full of Microsoft Surface RTs with a carefully planned out deployment process instead of a mixed environment. This way, teachers will understand the capabilities of the devices being used. Schools need to pick a single horse and ride it. The least capable device that can be used to its full potential is better than a mixed environment that will create confusion and slow down the learning process. If a "wild wild west" BYOD program is implemented, the tasks will end up being basic and won't take full advantage of the capabilities of the devices.